After playing at an elite level for more than a decade, cornerback Champ Bailey enters the final game of the 2014 preseason with little certainty about what kind of role he might fill in the Saints' secondary.
Because of a foot injury early in training camp, the 36-year-old, 12-time Pro Bowl player has appeared in only a portion of one exhibition game for New Orleans.
He is healthy enough to play against Baltimore on Thursday night, but coaches may still decide the Saints' long-term interests would be better served by sitting Bailey out to ensure he's healthy when the games start counting in the standings.
Bailey probably needs more time in the field in the preseason if he wants a legitimate chance to start against the Falcons to open the regular season on Sept. 7, but even he acknowledged, "I've just got to make sure my body feels good before I step out there in Atlanta."
Either way, Bailey said his designation as a starter or backup won't affect his approach.
"I'm not really concerned about it. I haven't lost any sleep over it. The only thing that bothers me is being hurt, period," Bailey said. "It has gotten in the way of me playing football. That's what I love to do. Regardless of how much I'm playing, I'm always out there competing like I'm the starter or going to be."
After Bailey was let go by Denver last offseason, the Saints brought him in, hoping his experience would help a young secondary, and they he'd be healthy enough to continue being effective for another season.
But Bailey is under no illusions that his extraordinary NFL resume will be an over-riding factor in how the Saints decide to use him.
"I don't think 15 years past has anything to do with how we go forward," Bailey said. "I've still got to go out here and show that I can get it done, just like anybody else on this team."
The fourth preseason game is generally regarded as the least meaningful of the exhibition slate because coaches tend to rest most prominent players and give the backups their best chance to compete for remaining roster spots before the final cut-down from 75 players to the regular-season limit of 53.
But that doesn't mean the game is devoid of story lines. Certainly not for Ryan Griffin, a second-year pro out of Tulane who has a chance to wind up as the primary backup to record-setting quarterback Drew Brees.
"For guys like me, first or second year guys, this is kind of our Super Bowl," Griffin said. He is competing with veteran Luke McCown for the Saints' backup job, and both are expected to play.
The game has the potential to serve as a bit of a dry run for Baltimore, which will revisit the Superdome during the regular season for a Monday night game on Nov. 24.
However, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said most of his regulars would not play. Superdome noise levels in the preseason are unlikely to approach those of a regular season night game anyway.
Still, there are a few potential regulars of which Harbaugh wants to see more. Namely, rookie safety Terrence Brooks, the club's third-round draft choice.
"Terrence has really made a move in the last week or so. He's playing faster; he's playing more assured of what his assignments are," Harbaugh said. "We'll see a lot Thursday night from Terrence. If he flies around, does the right thing and plays fast ... it'll be a real good sign for us."
Harbaugh and Saints coach Sean Payton also insisted that the result on the scoreboard is important to them — even if they won't be playing a lot of starters — because even preseason victories speak to the winning culture they're trying to promote in their organizations.
Both clubs have won their first three exhibition games this summer.
"How you play in the preseason matters," Harbaugh said. "Somebody can call B.S. on that and say that's not right, but I think it matters. ... If we're a good football team, we should play well every time we go out there.
If the Saints win, they'll go unbeaten in a preseason for the first time in club history.
"Something that Sean really believes in is competing in everything that we do," Saints defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said. "Whether or not some teams don't take it as seriously as others, it's something we take seriously."
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